Krongard's Soul

June 04, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- Donald Preston and his family have run a stationery and office-supply business in Bel Air for as long as I can remember, and many of us in Havre de Grace were pleased a few years ago when they decided to open a branch here.

It was convenient, naturally, but, more important, it was a source of pride. Any new business is a tangible expression of someone's confidence in the economic vitality of our community. And so it came as a blow when the local branch closed a few weeks ago. It just hadn't done enough volume to pay for itself, Mr. Preston said. He was saddened and probably a little $H embarrassed.

Collectively, Havre de Grace felt much the same way. But as far as I know nobody has yet suggested that Donald Preston had a moral responsibility to keep his money-losing Havre de Grace branch open, or proposed that he somehow be compelled to do so. That's one of the many ways in which Havre de Grace and Baltimore attitudes differ.

Lately one news story after another is about people and businesses leaving Baltimore, as well as a few stories about those deciding to stay. As news, the stories are entirely legitimate. But what's interesting is their implicit moral theme. When executives of Crown Central Petroleum or Alex. Brown Inc. talk about moving to the suburbs, their remarks are treated in many urban quarters like blasphemy. Even the mention of such a move is considered a gaffe, an indication of attitudes deemed improper. Leaving the city is at best ''anti-urban'' and at worst an expression of racial prejudice.

When Alex. Brown, after flirting with departure, recently decided to keep its headquarters in the city, the announcement was obviously good economic news for Baltimore and good political news for Kurt Schmoke. Some celebration was in order. But the tone of much of the commentary was fundamentally moral, suggesting that urban good had triumphed over suburban wickedness in the final struggle for Chairman Buzzy Krongard's soul.

Even more ecclesiastical has been the catfight between Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel Henson and Sun columnist Michael Olesker over the departure of white residents, especially Jews, from Park Heights and other neighborhoods in West Baltimore.

The whole thing has been reminiscent of a schism in a fundamentalist congregation over the details of the doctrine of infant damnation. Though they recite the same prayers and sing the same hymns, on this narrow subject each side manages to shock and horrify the other. Soon an arcane intellectual dispute turns very nasty, as what was once unthinkable gets thought and what was unspeakable gets said.

No sentient person disagrees that whites have fled the Baltimore by the thousands, or that the neighborhoods where they used to live 30 years ago are now mostly black and have a serious crime problem. But which came first, the urban decay or the white exodus? Even to ask that question in the wrong surroundings is to precipitate a theological dispute of Vesuvian proportions.

Because Mr. Henson seems to have suggested that the exodus came first, there are frenzied demands for his head. And because in his conversation with Mr. Olesker somebody may have said the word ''Jews,'' he is now accused of anti-Semitism.

But it's just as provocative to say that it was crime, most of it committed by young black men, that has ruined most of Baltimore's middle-class neighborhoods and left the city a sad shell of the place it was. And that, stripped of its niceties, is the position of those good liberal suburbanites who want the commissioner decapitated.

Anti-Semitism! Racism! Corporate Greed! Government Incompetence! Soon the verbal hand grenades fly back and forth across the lines, and it's pretty hard to tell who, if anybody, still holds the high ground. Obviously, there ought to be a moral dimension to public affairs. But when assertions of morality are used as weapons in political disputes, they lose their legitimacy.

Baltimore's plight ought not to be made a moral issue. Nor should the location of Alex. Brown's headquarters, nor Donald Preston's decision to close his Havre de Grace store. True morality is too fragile and precious a concept for that.

''Mankind's moral sense is not a strong beacon light,'' wrote James Q. Wilson. ''It is a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology. But brought close to the heart and cupped in one's hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.''

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Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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